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Safety Drives Refinery Shutdowns, Restarts

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted September 13, 2017

Shutting down and restarting a modern oil refinery is a complex, careful process that may be misunderstood amid some media reports in the aftermath of a major weather event – such as Hurricane Harvey, which at certain points took nearly 32 percent of U.S. refining capacity offline, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Among the most important things to know about Harvey-related refinery shutdowns and restarts:

  • Safety – Refinery shutdowns and restarts follow orderly processes to help ensure the safety of workers, neighboring communities and the environment.
  • Standards and Permitting – Federal and state regulations permit and govern refinery emissions and potential flaring under emergency and non-emergency conditions.
  • Monitoring – The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and EPA perform real-time monitoring and generate reports on the air quality in neighboring communities.
  • Air Quality: Typical – To date, TCEQ reports measured concentrations of targeted emissions have been in the typical range, “well below levels of health concerns.”

Ahead of the unprecedented 1 trillion gallons of water dumped on the Gulf Coast by Harvey, industry members acted swiftly to safely shut down facilities while supporting employees, including significant acts of humanitarianism and millions of dollars donated to relief organizations. Safe shut downs of refineries and other energy infrastructure were conducted to help ensure safe restarts when employees were able to return to work.

Yet, in the days after Harvey, some media reports have implied that these shut down and restarting processes were improper and outside the scope of state and federal oversight. To the contrary, in the event of a major storm like Harvey, refineries strive to use controlled emissions and flaring to protect workers, with facilities communicating closely with state and federal officials. This is done to help maximize facility and community safety. Indeed, in Harvey’s wake there have been no reports of explosions or other similarly hazardous conditions for workers or communities.

As refineries affected by Harvey started staged processes to come back online, we discussed that process here. An infographic by AFPM, illustrates the process:


Let’s underscore some important points about the processes:

  • To prepare for and respond to something like a hurricane, the safety of workers and neighboring communities is paramount.
  • Refinery shutdown and restarting processes follow detailed, staged steps to ensure safety.
  • Refinery flares are designed to burn waste gas in a safe, effective and controlled manner. Flares prevent the release of hazardous or combustible materials by converting the hydrocarbons in the gas into carbon dioxide and water. It’s not unusual for a refinery to have periods of flaring during a restart, especially following a full-site shutdown in advance of a hurricane. In certain circumstances, EPA recognizes flaring as an effective means to destroy pollutants at refineries and at other industrial sites.
  • During the restart process, TCEQ regulations and permits require refineries to apply the best engineering and air pollution control devices, as required by applicable standards, to restart and minimize emissions.
  • TCEQ requires that refineries promptly report all excess emissions associated with a shutdown, restart and damage from a hurricane. Out of an abundance of caution, the initial reports of estimated emissions typically overstate the actual emissions associated with the event.
  • TCEQ and EPA perform real-time monitoring of air quality. There is an extensive network of ambient air quality monitors in Corpus Christi, Houston and Beaumont. EPA also is conducting ambient air monitoring in the Houston area using its mobile laboratory.

Again, thus far TCEQ reports that most hourly concentrations of specific pollutants have been in the normal range and far below levels that could pose a health risk. Processes followed by refineries – including managing potential emissions and potential flaring – have played an important role in  minimizing risks to workers and communities.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.